With a bit of planning, you can take a cruise that fits your needs.
Mary Arnold needs both knees replaced and has two new hips because of arthritis. The 58-year-old retiree from Los Angeles canwalk only a few steps and uses a scooter outside of her home. But she doesn’t let her mobility issues interfere with her desire to travel.
A longtime fan of cruising, she has set sail 14 times. Ms. Arnold finds it convenient, affordable and an accessible vacation option. If you’re also considering a cruise, and have mobility challenges, here’s what you need to know before booking a cruise.
Selecting a Ship
Multiple cruise lines offer accessible staterooms for people who have disabilities. These rooms typically provide wider doorways, lowered closet rods and enough turning radius for a wheelchair. The bathroom has been outfitted with grab bars, a raised toilet, a roll-in shower with a fold-down bench, hand-held shower heads and a lowered sink. Be sure to confirm with the cruise line the exact dimensions and specific features of the cabin before you book. Even within the same cruise line, an accessible guest room may be different on different ships.
Like land-based hotels, the number of accessible cabins on any ship is a small percentage of the total inventory. For example, Celebrity Cruises’ newest ship, the Celebrity Edge, has 25 accessible staterooms across several price points, including two with butler service, out of a total of 1,467 staterooms. Accessible staterooms tend to fill up months or even a year before a cruise departs.
Most cruise lines have an accessibility department that assists guests with special needs. Carefully review a cruise line’s online accessibility information before booking a cruise, and reach out with questions. Some cruise lines may require guests to travel with a caretaker. You’ll need to bring your own wheelchair or scooter with you, though vendors such as Special Needs at Sea and Scootaround rent mobility devices and will deliver them to your stateroom. Passengers traveling with a wheelchair or scooter must store and charge it in their stateroom. (And no, you can’t leave it out in the hallway overnight.)
Newer ships offer a wealth of accessible benefits, including modern public bathrooms and better-designated wheelchair seating at theaters. The exterior doors of ships that lead to the decks can be a struggle to open — particularly when the wind is blowing — and modern ships have more automatic doors. Some ships offer pool lifts beside the swimming pools or spas; these submergible chairs allow people who cannot maneuver steps to get in and out.
However, not all ships are created equal. “The newer ships and the larger ships are easier to get around,” said Kristy Lacroix, owner of and agent at Wheelchair Escapes. “If you’re on a smaller ship, the isles are narrow. Just getting from your room to the elevators is going to be a problem when housekeeping has the linen carts out.”
Choosing an Itinerary
When selecting a cruise itinerary, it’s crucial for people with mobility challenges to know how they will get from the ship to the shore. Depending on the ship and the port of call, the ship may not directly dock at the destination. Instead, the ship anchors offshore. Small boats — called tenders — shuttle passengers to land. Almost all tenders are not wheelchair accessible. People who cannot walk a few steps must stay on the ship. Cruise lines usually know in advance which ports require a tender and state that information online.
“The biggest mistake people make is booking their cruise before looking at port and shore excursion accessibility. I’ve seen people book a cruise with seven ports and six of them are tenders where they can’t get off the ship,” John Sage, chief executive and founder of Accessible Travel Solutions, said.